In order to bring you the best possible user experience, this site uses Javascript. If you are seeing this message, it is likely that the Javascript option in your browser is disabled. For optimal viewing of this site, please ensure that Javascript is enabled for your browser.

The importance of caring for our teeth

Dental decay is the most common oral health problem that affects teeth, but it can be prevented.

The truth about dental decay 

Dental decay is the most common "disease" that affects teeth, but it can be prevented. Decay follows the formation of plaque, a sticky film found on teeth. Chewing causes food to get trapped between teeth and inside the grooves. Bacteria found in the plaque converts sugar and starch (found in carbohydrates) into acids, which erode and cause holes to form in the teeth.1 Every time sugar is eaten and broken down, teeth are attacked by acid for up to an hour. Acidic foods can also damage teeth as they etch away the enamel on the teeth.

Plaque can lead to gum disease when it builds up on the gum line of teeth. Gums can become inflamed (gingivitis) and the gum line recedes. Plaque can destroy the fibres and bone that hold teeth in place. Saliva neutralises acid and helps to remineralise teeth.1

The introduction of fluoride in water and toothpaste reduced the amount of tooth decay in most of Australia.

Who is at risk of oral health problems? 

  • People who smoke (tobacco and/or cannabis)
  • People with diabetes and renal failure
  • People who have had rheumatic fever or have other cardiac problems may require antibiotic coverage for dental work
  • People with dry mouth conditions, HIV, alcohol problems and other conditions that are likely to affect their oral health
  • People who are obese
  • Older people

What implications are there for our health when we don’t look after our teeth? 

A build up of plaque on teeth and around the gum line can lead to gum disease. This has been linked to heart disease because the bacteria that infect your gums can get into the blood and can sometimes infect the valves in your heart. These bacterial infections may also have a general affect on heart health.

Gum disease also results in a reduced ability to chew wholesome foods. This can lead to poorer nutrition which in turn can affect the gums. Find out more about gum disease

How should we care for our teeth? 

  • Good oral hygiene.  Floss between teeth before brushing. And chewing toothpaste on a piece of foam before brushing helps to force paste into the grooves of teeth.
  • Regular teeth brushing. Plaque can be removed by brushing with a fluoride-based toothpaste which helps saliva repair teeth. Plaque cannot be removed by rinsing alone. Brushing twice a day after meals will protect teeth. Children under the age of six should use low-fluoride toothpaste.
  • Regular visits to the dentist. Regular checks at the dentist are an important part of maintaining healthy teeth and gums. Children should visit their dentist every six months.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Snack on foods that are less acidic or sweet, such as  cheese, nuts, apples, carrots and celery. And limit sugary foods and drinks such as juice, soft drinks and sports drinks as they soften teeth. Milk-based drinks are preferable. Water is better still.
  • Drink tap water. The introduction of fluoride in water and toothpaste reduced the amount of tooth decay in most of Australia. But remember, bottled water does not contain fluoride.
  • Protect teeth. During sport, wear a professionally-fitted mouth guard and/or helmet.
  • Quit smoking and limit alcohol consumption. Tobacco and alcohol intake are risk factors for oral cancers. A smoker’s ability to heal is significantly reduced compared to that of non-smokers.

What foods and drinks can affect your oral health? 

Any food containing sugar will increase the risk of tooth decay. Many processed foods have sugar in them, and the higher up it appears in the list of ingredients, the more sugar there is in the product. Read food labels to determine whether the product contains sugar. Sugar can be listed on labels as carbohydrates, and carbohydrates can cause similar plaque build-up.

Acidic foods can also cause the teeth to erode. Some examples of acidic foods include beer, grapefruit, orange juice, pickled foods, cola drinks, red wine and vinegar.3

Does chewing gum help?

Chewing gum makes your mouth produce more saliva, which helps to cancel out the acid in your mouth after eating or drinking. It has been proven that using sugar-free chewing gum after meals can prevent tooth decay. However, it is important to use only sugar-free gum, as ordinary chewing gum contains sugar and therefore may damage your teeth.

It’s been proven that using sugar-free chewing gum after meals can prevent tooth decay. However, it’s important to use only sugar-free gum, as ordinary chewing gum contains sugar and therefore may damage your teeth.

For more information about dry mouth and chewing gum.

Apart from having regular check-ups when should I see a dentist? 

Visit a dentist if you have:

  • A toothache. This may be caused by dental decay
  • Bleeding gums. This may be caused by gum isease. Some viral infections can also make gums inflamed
  • Dental trauma. A tooth may be loosened or knocked out. If a permanent tooth is knocked out, wrap it in plastic or place it in milk and seek dental advice immediately. It may be possible to put the tooth back.

Further information 

Sources: 

American Academy of Periodontology. How to keep a healthy smile for life. [online] Chicago, IL: American Academy of Periodontology. [accessed 27 May 2011] Available from: http://www.perio.org/consumer/smileforlife.htm
American Academy of Periodontology. Mouth-body connection. [online] Chicago, IL: American Academy of Periodontology. [accessed 27 May 2011] Available from: http://www.perio.org/consumer/mbc.top2.htm

Australian Dental Association (ADA). Healthy eating equals healthy teeth. [online] St Leonards, NSW: ADA. [accessed 7 Jul 2011] Available from: http://www.ada.org.au/app_cmslib/media/lib/0711/m102959_v1_healthyeating_factsheet.pdf (PDF 469kB)

Australian Dental Association (ADA). Caring for Teeth for Life. [online] St Leonards, NSW: ADA. [accessed 7 Jul 2011] Available from: http://www.ada.org.au/app_cmslib/media/lib/0711/m102734_v1_media_release_babies_%20toddlers.pdf (PDF 58kB)

Do LG Slade GD Roberts-Thomson KF et al. Smoking-attributable periodontal disease in the Australian adult population. Journal of Clinical Periodontology. 2008; 35(5):398–404.

Gordon D. The Oral Infections and Vascular Disease Epidemiology Study (INVEST). Circulation2005; 111: 576-582.

Pharmacy Self Care. Oral health. Deakin, ACT: Pharmaceutical Society of Australia. 2009.

Slade GD Spencer AJ Roberts-Thomson KF, eds. Australia’s dental generations: the National Survey of Adult Oral Health 2004–06. AIHW cat. no. DEN 165. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (Dental Statistics and Research Series No. 34). 2007.

Top of page

Last published: 30 July 2011

Disclaimer
This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

Bupa Australia Pty Ltd makes no warranties or representations regarding the completeness or accuracy of the information. Bupa Australia is not liable for any loss or damage you suffer arising out of the use of or reliance on the information. Except that which cannot be excluded by law. We recommend that you consult your doctor or other qualified health professional if you have questions or concerns about your health. For more details on how we produce our health content, visit the About our health information page.